By Rick Feibusch
Sportscars are as American as apple pie. In the early days of motoring, many of the world’s sportiest speedsters and raciest roadsters were built right here in the good ol’ US of A. While cars like the Stutz Bearcat, Mercer Racabout, and the Apperson Jackrabbit could burn up a track with the best of Europe, the US’s crude dirt roads and long-distance driving sent our engineers in a completely different design direction.
Our cars were built more like trucks because they needed road clearance, strong chassis, and suspension, then bigger motors to haul this ever-escalating mass around. Cars got better by the year with self-starters, steel- (rather than wood) spoked wheels, and easier-to-operate controls. Roads improved as well, and a paved national highway connected the coasts. Now that people were less concerned with fording streams or breaking springs on potholes, car buyers started asking for a softer ride, attractive colors, and plusher interiors.
By the mid-1930s, roadsters and tourers had been replaced with weather-tight convertibles, while all-steel closed bodies were preferred by most motorists. By the early 1940s, a proper American sporting car had a swoopy convertible body mounted on a full-sized luxury cruiser, like a Packard Darrin, a Lincoln Continental, or a Bowman & Schwartz (Coachcraft) Cadillac. Regular folk had to make due with a snappy Ford ragtop with fender skirts, dual exhaust, and a Columbia two-speed rear end.
WWII changed the whole concept of the sportscar. Americans brought to Europe by the war were exposed to all sorts of exotic cultural delights. Among them were proper British sportscars. They were everything American cars were not: small, light, and maneuverable, with a style that hearkened back to the best of the Roaring Twenties. These cars were built to zip through hedge-lined country roads in an alternative universe where light fog is considered a nice day and only sissies put their hoods up in anything short of a monsoon—and what sane motorist would be driving in a monsoon anyway?
Enter the MG. This is the marque that started the post-war imported car business in America. Not just sportscars! No VW or Porsche yet, and Renault and Fiat were making cars that would barely qualify as golf carts here. The British needed to rebuild a bombed-out country and set up a peacetime industrial base. And we needed cars—the US was running on five-to-ten-year-old used cars at the war’s end. It would take years to fill the backorders. The British sent Morris Minors, Austin A40s, Jags, and, most intriguing, the MG roadsters.
These cars were classic, classy, sporty, and sexy. How could you not love a car with a tire on the back and the steering wheel on the wrong side? A car that required a yardstick for a fuel gauge, a heavy sweater, and a tartan lap robe, even if you remembered to pack the side curtains and the flask of Scotch? Ill-suited to American driving conditions? You bet! But motorheads seem to always turn adversity to adventure when it comes to a sexy car.
The TD was introduced in 1949 and was essentially built for the American market. The chassis was derived from the softer-suspended MG Y-Series sedans, and the traditional wood-framed MG body was made wider to fit to the shortened, wider Y-Series frame, then elongated for a pleasing proportion. This time, the steering wheel could be had on either side. The tall, skinny wire wheels that had been favored by MG for decades made way for some solid, cheaper-to-make 15” steel units more akin to its Y-Series origins.
At first, MG purists complained: “Just too modern!” “Ride is too soft.” “Leans too much.” “Not a proper MG!” Yes, it was a bit different, but it was tailored to the US and our type of roads. Many people who would never have considered an earlier MG found them civilized enough to buy and use as regular transportation. For what the new car lost in Gatsby-esque pizzazz and WWI flying-ace cache, it made up for with a smoother ride, more interior space, and a balanced proportion that was classic, yet curiously modern.
The really cool things, like the flat-folding windscreen, exposed spare, and headlamps that could be seen from the driver’s seat, were still there on a car equipped with independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. A MkII version with bigger carbs and valves, better suspension, and higher rear end gearing (4.88s versus 5.12) was made available to more serious sportsmen. This spec became standard on the TF.
The MGTF was developed as a transitional model after it was understood that the prewar look and wood-framed body would soon go the way of the buggy whip. This car is arguably considered the most handsome of the bunch. The bonnet line was lowered, the grille gently slanted rearward, and the head lamps smoothly fared into the fenders somewhere between Morgan and Pierce-Arrow. Wire wheels were made available for the first time since the MGTC. A larger 1500cc engine was introduced for the last year.
These cars are about as olde and English as you can get and still drive around in 2005 traffic. I drove a TD for eight years in and about San Francisco, and it was easy to drive and park, and almost fast enough to comfortably take on the freeway. Parts are easy-ish, and you can practically take one apart with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.
That said, T-Series MGs not only look like old cars, they really are old cars! They’re slow and geared low. Cruising speed is only about 60 mph, which is just as well, because the wind will blow your ears off much above that. It requires a lot of patience and an attitude adjustment in order to get “into” owning a T-Series car. You all of a sudden start shopping for a herringbone flat-cap and consider waxing your moustache and curling its ends.
Also look for soft wood in the body and sagging doors. Mike O’Connor of O’Connor Classic Autos, an MG specialty and restoration shop in Santa Clara, California, says, “Most of these cars at one time or another were mistreated by their owners or mechanics who did not know the correct procedures, or took the time to find the correct parts—you usually have to spend some time sorting out these kind of problems.” Further, MGs that were restored 20 or 30 years ago usually were done to the “fixed-up used car” standard rather than to the restoration quality we’ve come to expect today.
Mike O’Connor says, “The prices of T-Series cars have firmed up over the last few years, and there doesn’t seem to be geographical ‘sub markets’ anymore because of the Internet. Parts are easier to find than any time before. There are plenty of cars out there, but many were restored, to one extent or another, years ago have been off the road for a long time.” These “garage finds” can turn out to be a heartache or the deal of the decade, depending on your luck and your condition appraisal abilities. Mike says, “The bottom of the market is pretty much the sum of the usable parts.”
As we almost always seem to say, buy the nicest one that you can afford and look at and drive as many examples as you can (for sale or not) so that you can get some perspective before deciding. Join a club, ask around: You might find the car of a lifetime that is not on eBay or at an auction, but safely tucked in a club member’s garage waiting for a true believer to come by and adopt it. The price might not be much less, but you sometimes find cars that were obviously so well loved and so well kept that they are worth every penny asked.
As for modified cars, even a well-engineered hybrid will scare away purists. On the other hand, anything that makes these cars faster, safer, and easier to drive and maintain will still appeal to the portion of the market that will want to actually use the car regularly—as long as it still “feels” and sounds like an MG. Modifications are also of less consequence when the car is in less-than-show condition. A top-buck concours-quality restoration should be stock. A clean runner with a Volvo drivetrain will be probably worth as much as a stocker in the same condition, though it may take longer to sell.